Colm O’Reilly Slays As the Bad Doctor
Theatre Oobleck presents:
An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events
Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening
reviewed by Paige Listerud
It was 9 years ago, at the Berger Park coach house, when I first encountered Mickle Maher’s play, An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening. The coach house set an eerie gothic tone, as did the robes that swathed Colm O’Reilly as Mephistopheles–out from under which Mickle Maher crawled to play the bad doctor. That opening moment, complete with a candle balanced silently on Mephistopheles’ head, sealed the suggestion of magic, the transcendence of time and space, that dominates the legendary pact between Dr. Faustus and the Devil. It also seemed to suggest from the start Faustus’ subjugation to Mephistopheles. Maher’s performance was light, mercurial; he played for laughs and there are plenty of them–laughter against impending darkness.
In Theatre Oobleck’s current revival, Colm O’Reilly’s interpretation of Dr. Faustus already starts darker and weightier than Maher’s. But then the stage setting in Chopin Theatre’s basement studio lends itself to a leaner, darker, and more modern tone. The basement is utterly black; the closing of the room’s long black sliding door implies that audience and cast are being sealed in hell. Only two hanging pendant lamps provide lighting—and, oh yes, the Exit sign. The audience is set up in two opposing rows, giving the stage the look a fashion runway, with Mephistopheles (David Shapiro) planted silently at one end.
Memory is a curse, particularly when it cannot allow for the introduction of new impressions. The trouble is that, back at the coach house, O’Reilly’s Mephistopheles was so superb. Positioned at the center of dramatic space, with nary a single word or gesture, he fully embodied the Hell of Maher’s text:
Hell . . . where it’s said there is no Time, that the infinity of Time is snuffed by a larger infinity, a Time so vast it swallows our miniscule eternity, swallows even Heaven’s eternity . . . An infinity just too, too excessive. Excessive to the point of unholy meaninglessness.
It was around O’Reilly’s centralizing void that Maher’s Dr. Faustus could only dance.
At best, Shapiro’s Mephistopheles seems a perverse tabula rasa upon which Faustus projects his own evil. And project he does. Nothing in the production chills more than the voice O’Reilly switches to when relaying how he and the Devil supposedly conversed throughout Faustus’ last day. I say supposedly, because it’s implied that all conversations—indeed, all events, time travel, and wondrous discoveries—are occurring only in the depths of Faustus’ mind. If that is the intention, it is one that shifts this play toward the modern, in that it banishes magic from the play.
By magic, I only mean the Supernatural. More than enough magic abounds from O’Reilly’s performance. I don’t know how many have tired yet of critics comparing O’Reilly with Orson Welles. But where that comparison works in the play’s favor is in his ability to portray a genius utterly absorbed with his own self-importance. The darkness O’Reilly brings to the role doesn’t just lend gravity to Faustus’ outbursts, but creates with them an inexorably magnetic pull toward madness. “I don’t need to apologize to the whole world. I’m sick of the world,” says Faustus. Lines that could sound like clichéd world-weariness from another actor emerge from O’Reilly like a black vortex of futility, making his Faustus the evil of which he speaks. It’s a performance that unifies the Devil and the Devil’s prey.